Ryan: These might have been Kyle Larson’s last words in NASCAR
Now that his NASCAR livelihood has collapsed in roughly 40 hours, it’s instructive to remember that everything started for Kyle Larson nearly as quickly as it ended.
Long before casually uttering the most dehumanizing and reprehensible of racial slurs during an iRacing stream – which sent his sponsors justifiably fleeing and subsequently caused his termination at Chip Ganassi Racing – Kyle Larson was an 18-year-old sprint car driver of limited renown when he began making trips to Indiana in May 2011 for Keith Kunz Motorsports.
Within six months, he had become the second person in history to win the Four Crown Nationals at Eldora Speedway (in his first trip to the intimidating dirt half-mile) and was on the radar of every NASCAR powerhouse as a can’t-miss prospect.
“It’s crazy how quickly my life changed that year,” Larson said during a 2016 episode of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast. “It felt like it took forever for me to finally get that opportunity. Once I got it, my life was changing by the day. All for great stuff. My career exploded after that.”
It’s imploded even faster than anyone could have imagined, and it now is reasonable to wonder whether Larson’s path back to a NASCAR Cup ride seems even less likely than his meteoric rise from dirt tracks to Daytona once did.
And it also seems fair to consider whether Larson, who turns 28 in July, ever truly was ready for the intense scrutiny and spotlight that accompanies racing in the major leagues.
The NASCAR media’s #BluntLarson fan club (and this author was a charter member) celebrated and encouraged the driver’s candor. There were signs that Larson was learning to use his megaphone wisely, campaigning for a larger connection to racing’s grassroots or weighing in on the debates over the quality of Cup racing.
There were other instances, though, in which red flags of indifference still signified a lack of responsibility and laissez-faire style in which he seemed to leave much of the heavy lifting with his career to team owner Chip Ganassi.
There was the poor way he admittedly treated his No. 42 team on the radio during a Martinsville race after 2017 playoff elimination. There was the playful accusation that Hendrick Motorsports was cheating (again, his words) and caused a headache for Ganassi with its engine vendor. There were the subtle reminders that NASCAR often felt no more than a 9 to 5 gig he had to work to pay the bills so he could play in the dirt.
A Darlington rain-delay joke on national TV last year about Asians and video games (“I’ll probably get in trouble for that, but I’m Asian,” Larson said. “I can say it.”) feels even more tone-deaf now.
He often came across as someone who worried too little about how his words resonated, and that was part of his appeal to fans tired of drivers who toed the line with bleached personalities. Blunt often is better.
This case, though, wasn’t about bluntness.
It was about a word that never should have resided as an option in his vernacular, as Dale Earnhardt Jr. and co-host Mike Davis noted on the Dale Jr. Download podcast this week.
In his video apology Monday, Larson said he wasn’t raised this way, but he used the vile epithet so casually, it must have been ingrained at some point in his life.
It’s partly why that mea culpa rang hollow for many.
Saying sorry was absolutely necessary -- but only as part of a much bigger detailing of the soul-searching steps he would take next while acknowledging the road to redemption would be difficult and long.
If Larson wants to return in Cup, it’ll take more than just NASCAR lifting an indefinite suspension for using a forbidden and inexcusable term he should have known was beyond offensive in any circumstance.
Larson’s image rehabilitation will need to go well past his genuine contrition Monday. He will need to demonstrate a real understanding of the black community and its history of civil rights struggles.
As a former Drive for Diversity entrant, no one should understand better than Larson that leveraging a platform to promote greater inclusion is a major goal in NASCAR – not just because of its quest to gain fans but also because it’s the right thing to do.
If Larson wants to race immediately, there probably is a much faster road back in the dirt. The budgets and stakes are lower, and Kyle Larson Racing offers a turnkey opportunity.
The World of Outlaws Series has extended an olive branch. So long as Larson completes sensitivity training within the next month, he can race sprint cars again on the circuit where his team already has a full-time entry.
The money that beckons there also will be decent -- perhaps better than any salary he could command in NASCAR. The bottom has dropped out from the market value of Larson, who was considered the presumptive top impending free agent in Cup until Monday.
Given that driver contracts typically run three years, and that a star of his caliber still could draw mid-seven figures in a bidding war, it’s easy to conclude he cost himself at least $15 million with a few seconds of reprehensible conduct on a hot mic Sunday.
Larson lost any leverage for negotiating his biggest contract yet. While there might be a team still willing to take a flier, it probably would have to be a deep-pocketed owner who needn’t worry about finding a sponsor.
Faced with making a fraction of his Cup income over the past six years, dirt racing suddenly looks much more inviting.
Larson himself made a stir three years ago when he noted making more cash in one night of selling T-shirts to dirt fans vs. six months of merchandising sales in NASCAR.
His roots are in the dirt, and it could be enticing to race immediately while rebuilding his image rather than waiting on the sidelines while trying to claw his way back into NASCAR.
Larson is on record as saying he wants a World of Outlaws championship. The dirt racing fan base likely would welcome him back with open arms and wallets, buying up as much of his merchandise as COVID-19-battered bank accounts might allow once racing restarts around the country.
Just as quickly as he arrived, Larson suddenly could be gone and quite possibly never heard from again in NASCAR despite his boundless talent.
It would be the second-most stunning thing (ranking behind the events of this week) that ever happened to a driver known for rarely choosing his words carefully.